What is the value of play? Something that most parents can agree on is that young kids love to play. It's in their nature. They have imaginations bursting at the seams and a wonderful sense of unadulterated fun. A question that many parents wonder however is what, if anything, do kids really learn through play? What is the value of play in early childhood and beyond?
In today’s competitive world, there can be pressure on preschoolers to work hard and play less. Some preschools are choosing to focus on the more traditional academics - basic math skills and letter recognition - over playing. This can result in important developmental skills being overlooked. But the two don't have to be mutually exclusive.
So, is playing really that important? Is it just for preschoolers or is there a value of play for older kids? Is there such a thing as too little? Well, let’s break it down.
The Value of Play for Kids under 6—How Children Learn through Play
Under the age of 2, children parallel play. In other words, they’ll play independently alongside their playmate. As language skills start to develop, from around 2 ½ to 3, children begin to interact more with others. Over time, they'll seek out those who share common interests, naturally gravitating towards children who are similar to them. That’s when playing really becomes even more fun!
Experts place a high importance on the value of play as studies show that playing is key to a child’s social, emotional and physical development. Play is known to have a positive effect on a child’s cognitive development, dexterity and hand-eye coordination, as well as creativity and imagination. In other words, it’s key for both brain and physical development.
The Value of Play—What Does That All Really Mean?
"Cognitive development is the construction of thought processes, including remembering, problem solving, and decision-making, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood". Encyclopedia of Children’s Health
"Social-emotional development includes the child’s experience, expression, and management of emotions and the ability to establish positive and rewarding relationships with others". Cohen and others 2005
Cognitive, social and emotional development are all very closely linked with much cross-over between them. They can influence a child’s decisions and her ability to think and reason and understand through problem-solving, attention and memory (to name but a few).
Through play, children are able to make sense of the world around them. Positive experiences and emotions can play a big role in a child’s cognitive development and inspire a child to learn. It stands to reason, the happier the child (at any age), the less stressed and anxious she’ll feel, and the better she’ll perform at (pre)school.
Moreover, positive social interactions i.e. playing with others, whether it be with another child or an adult, introduce the child to hugely important “people skills” which are essential for later success in life. Below are examples of how different experiences through play can start to develop these social skills and provide children with a strong foundation for future development.
The Value of Play—Examples of Social, Emotional and Cognitive Skills a Child Develops through Play
Let’s start with the single most important value of play - the sheer joy and happiness a child feels when playing. That in itself is worth more than its weight in gold. As we all know, laughter is the best medicine!
Talking of laughter—laughing when your child pulls a funny face will encourage a positive reaction from her (who from around age 4 loves to goof around and make people laugh). She’ll react to that emotion and pull a funny face again to elicit another laugh from you (or indeed someone else!). She's starting to understand cause and effect. She will then remember the reaction she received, and repeat her newly discovered party trick another day (a deposit for the memory bank and points for humor).
Social play or Cooperative play, i.e. playing with others, will help her develop her verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Through language development; listening; body language; facial expressions; and tone of voice, young children are able to communicate their wants and needs to each other. Through social play, they also experience the concept of give and take as they learn to share their toys (granted, some kids may take longer to develop this particular skill than others!). Having to wait their turn has the benefit of teaching them patience/delayed gratification.
Other essential “people skills” young children can be introduced to through playing with others are social cooperation, collaboration and conflict resolution as they learn to “work” together to build something or to make something happen. They'll also receive important lessons in flexibility and compromise by not always getting their own way, as well as negotiation techniques and bargaining power as they attempt to get their own way! Best of all, they’ll start to learn about friendship and have a sense of belonging.
Constructive play i.e. using building toys and puzzles, introduces them to strategic thinking as they consider where things need to go and why. It can also improve their focus and concentration/attention span as well as their ability to follow direction as they listen to the instructions or look at pictures to see how something might work. By figuring out that a round peg goes in a round hole, they are learning to problem solve. By repeating this process, they are using/exercising their memory.
Independent play i.e. playing alone, allows your child to learn how to entertain herself. It gives her the chance to be independent and try to figure things out for herself. It'll help increase her confidence as she enjoys her own successes.
Structured play i.e. playing games with rules, like a board game or sports or tag or Simon Says, etc, allows children to understand the importance of social contracts and rules. It helps teach them that for life to function properly, certain rules must be adhered to.
Fantasy play—When playing dress up or make-believe, they’re using their creativity and unleashing their imaginations. They're able to experiment with language and emotions.
By pressing a certain button on a toy and hearing a sound or even pulling too hard on a doll’s head and snapping it off is teaching them about cause and effect/consequences (no dolls were harmed in the making of this blog post!)
When children enjoy free-play (unstructured play), it gives them the freedom to make their own rules and be unrestricted in their thinking; explore the impossible, and stretch their imaginations.
The list of benefits is seemingly endless but it’s inevitable that they’ll also experience the less than desirable, yet developmentally important, ones too. These may include jealousy, selfishness, anger, disappointment, frustration, lying and cheating. Fear not however as these are all part of their healthy all-round development; emotions that they’ll (hopefully) learn to control and rein in as they mature. Overtime, these will be replaced with feelings of honesty, pride, sensitivity, empathy and sympathy.
The Value of Play—What About Physical Skills?
Playing in early childhood and beyond is also integral to the development of physical skills —specifically fine motor skills (when the small muscles in the wrists, hands and fingers; or the feet and toes work together to perform precise and refined movements) and gross motor skills (the movement and coordination of the large muscles such as arms and legs, etc.)
Physical play (also known as motor play) gives children the chance to develop both individual gross and fine muscle strength and overall integration of muscles, nerves, and brain functions.
Building blocks like LEGO, K'Nex or Mega Blocks, are a great way for kids of all ages to practice their fine motor skills and improve dexterity as they pick up the sometimes fiddly bricks and learn to place them the right way to connect them together.
Other great ways to practice these fine motor skills are puzzles, drawing, cutting, sewing, beading, (finger) painting, and sticking stickers. Practicing their fine motor skills will help your children develop good pencil grip and handwriting skills.
Rolling down a hill, standing, walking, running, playing sports, jumping up and down, balancing on one foot, skipping, and climbing trees are just a few ways to help develop gross motor skills (and wear out your children).
Things like playing catch, throwing a ball, threading and lacing, playing bat and ball, video games, and stacking cups can help develop better hand-eye coordination which will also help with reading, sports and handwriting.
While none of these skills are developed overnight, they give children the building-blocks which they will continue to develop throughout their childhood (and indeed into adulthood!).
The Value of Play—Let's Not Forget
Playing doesn’t just benefit kids - laughter (and chocolate) releases feel-good endorphins and helps keep us young. Playing with your child has the added benefit of creating additional opportunities for parent-child bonding. So, it’s a double win!
The Value Of Play—What Happens When It's All Work and No Play?
"If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less". Free To Learn, Peter Gray.
In most preschools across the country, the majority of learning has been done through play. By 1st grade however, learning through play is put on the back burner. This is primarily due to the time constraints and pressure to cover the prescribed curriculum and meet government imposed standards.
According to education firm, Pearson, Finland has ranked number 1 for having the best educational system in the world (based on the most recent Program for International Student Assessment test).
There are many reasons for this including, but not limited to, an absence of poverty, more funding for education, free education from preschool through to college, higher paid teachers, higher qualified teachers, socialized healthcare, free lunches, etc. But perhaps most controversially: children in Finland do not start school until the age of 7, there's little standardized testing, and elementary students have longer and more frequent recesses.
Basically, kids in Finland have more time to be kids. With little homework and shorter school days, kids have more time to play. Business Insider reports; "Finns place a lot of value on free time and play. By law, teachers must give students a 15-minute break for every 45 minutes of instruction".
By contrast, in the US, some preschools are moving away from play-based learning towards a more academic/structured-learning in an attempt to get the kids reading and writing before 1st grade. With the pressure now more on academics, the value of play, in particular free-play (unstructured play), has not been recognized. Consequently, there has been an erosion of kids' free play time. But at what cost?
The Deficit of Play
"The Play Deficit is having profound consequences for kids physically as well as mentally and socially because children need a place to play every day in order to be active and healthy". American Academy of Pediatrics.
The Physical Impact of a Play Deficit
KaBoom!, is a national non-profit dedicated to helping communities build playgrounds for children so that they can give all kids the childhood they deserve, filled with balanced and active play, to help them thrive. They believe play matters for all kids, because all the science affirms that play is critical to a child’s overall health, development and well-being.
"The play deficit continues to harm our children and stifle their mental and physical development, while directly facilitating the ongoing childhood obesity crisis". Darell Hammond, Founder & CEO of KaBOOM!
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; "the percentage of children with obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s. Today, about one in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) has obesity".
The reason for this increase is mostly two-fold. Firstly, diet. Secondly, lack of exercise. According to KaBoom!: "Only one in four children gets 60 minutes of [the recommended] physical activity or active play every day". Kids should be going outside and getting fresh air. They should be playing in the yard or playground; climbing trees, playing jump rope, tag, hide and seek, and climbing the play structure. These are all fantastic ways to further practice their gross motor skills and burn off some energy after sitting in a classroom all day.
Older kids should be rollerblading, cycling, running, skateboarding, shooting hoops - enjoying the freedom and keeping physically fit. Sadly, kids today lead more sedentary lifestyles than previous generations. With shorter recess at school, and increased planned activities and homework after school, there are fewer opportunities to be outside. Unfortunately, children are now far less active than they should be.
The Intellectual Impact of a Play Deficit
Creativity can't be taught. It can be fostered, it can be encouraged, but it's not something we can learn. We already know the value of play in providing children with opportunities to explore their creative side and excite their imaginations. There is a fear that the lack of (spontaneous) play can harm a child's skill, flexibility and strength to cope with stressful situations (now and later on in life).
Creativity expert and author, Sir Ken Robinson, is challenging the way we're educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence. Check out his TedTalk below on Do Schools Kill Creativity?, where he discusses how today's children are given fewer opportunities to be creative at school.
The way most teaching is now done in school (elementary through to high schools), kids aren't being given as many opportunities to stimulate their innovative and creative sides. We aren't able to change that overnight but we can provide a more playful environment outside of school. Giving our children the time and freedom to unleash their imaginations through play - whether it's playing make-believe, or free-style drawings, or making up stories, or building a spaceship out of card boxes - will be invaluable to their emotional development.
It's not just young children who benefit from playful environments. Some middle schools and high schools are now trying to bring back an element of age-appropriate play in their classrooms/studies as research has shown "a rise in mental health problems—such as anxiety and depression—among young people that has paralleled a decline in children’s opportunities to play" (Time).
Students aside, organizations across the country have started to recognize the value of play and its impact on their employees. Numerous workplaces have created chill out areas and gaming zones where staff can kick-back, relax, have a laugh and stimulate their creative juices. Some are even offering classes to equip their staff with creative skills from painting and drawing, to learning musical instruments. According to Fox News; "Google employees are paid to play beach volleyball, go bowling or scale a climbing wall; activities that take place at the search engine’s main campus in California. At LinkedIn, employees can play foosball or ping-pong when they tire of answering emails. At Zynga, arcade games grace the hallways".
Many organizations are now appreciating the need for employees to be able to switch off from the more regimented side of their jobs and recharge in order to keep them stimulated and productive and keep their creativity flowing. The same goes for students of all ages! They spend most of their day in a fairly rigid environment at school, letting them cut loose after school is what their minds and bodies crave.
The Social Impact of a Play Deficit
We've seen a decline in play (all variations) over the last 5 decades. According to author Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Boston College; "free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children's activities... It is hard to find groups of children outdoors at all, and, if you do find them, they are likely to be wearing uniforms and following the directions of coaches while their parents dutifully watch and cheer".
The increase of working parents, safety concerns, helicopter parenting, fear of strangers, traffic, academic pressures, homework, increase of technology, are just a few reasons for this deficiency in outdoor unstructured fun. This is thought to be resulting in a more risk-adverse society with increased anti-social behavior.
During play, children learn to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, explore friendships, and communicate with each other. Those who aren't given enough playtime are more likely to encounter problems during more formalized social interactions. Playing with others in an unstructured environment is invaluable to forming life-skills and developing healthy relationships.
Children need be having fun with one another (and their parents). They need to be playing with toys, building forts, putting on plays, creating imaginary worlds, making up games, chasing monsters, blowing bubbles, playing tag, arguing over Monopoly, drawing and guessing with Pictionary...
So, let's all take a leaf out of Peter Pan's book, because in the words of the great George Bernard Shaw...
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
Let's all get up, get out and get playing!